About five years ago I wouldn’t have been writing this. I’ve been an enthusiastic reader for as long as I can remember. My father was an avid reader and there were always books in the house. I was taught to read from an early age. I could read from, about, the age of three or four. I’m not talking Nietzsche or anything but definitely Dr Seuss. One of my memories, as a child, is reading books which tended to feature the high jinks and adventures of schoolboys. And not like the school I went to. I thoroughly enjoyed the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge. These featured JCT Jennings and his friend CEJ Darbishire at Linbury Court prep school.
As I grew up I discovered the anarchic delights of Nigel Molesworth of St Custards. These were written by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle who was best known for his St Trinian’s cartoons. Whereas Jennings was middle class and generally well behaved, Molesworth was a complete and utter tyke! In much the same way that Les Dawson had to be an excellent piano player in order to play so badly (apologies for anyone who has no idea about that reference, this may help) so you needed to be a good writer in order to get away with writing so idiosyncratically!
As Any Fule Kno
There were only four books in the Molesworth canon (Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms, and Back in the Jug Agane) as opposed to the twenty four in the Jennings series but they saw me through to my teenage years. I’m not desperately sure why I was so keen on that sub-genre as it is not as though I went to public school! Still, it hasn’t affected the Harry Potter sales and it was just the start of a lifetime of reading. I remember queuing up in a state of excitement waiting for Life, The Universe And Everything to come out. This was before the Harry Potter era and the midnight launch.
I also used to enjoy going to an author reading when a book was launched and have fond memories of actually meeting and chatting with the likes of David Attenborough, Bill Bryson, Clive James, and, indeed, Douglas Adams himself. That was one of the advantages of living on the route into the centre of town. Jump on the bus, ride into town, a few drinks, listen to an author, have a chat, a few more drinks, and then back on the bus with a signed copy of a nice new book.
Thousands Of Books In Your Pocket
The next big step for me as a consumer of the written word was the arrival of the e-book reader. I was an early adopter and had one of the first Sony PRS Readers. It didn’t last long but was rapidly replaced by a variety of Kindles; I’ve had about half a dozen different models over the years. I used to like being able to read during my lunchtime and being able to buy a new book wirelessly should I need to. To this day I still carry a Kindle reader as well as having the Kindle and Apple Books software on my iPad and iPhone.
I tend towards a mildly obsessive completionist frame of mind. When I find an author or a series that I like I simply have to get through every book in the catalogue. It started before secondary school with the Jennings series I mentioned earlier. I then went through all the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Dirk Gently books. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series was an obvious next step. Patricia Cornwall’s Scarpetta series and Lee Child’s Reacher books continue to provide entertainment. Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series is only three novels in but proving to be entertaining enough that I keep ordering the next one in advance.
When Is The Next One Out?
As well as devouring fiction I also enjoy non-fiction. Bill Bryson always proved to be entertaining as does Randall Munroe. But there was one general area of non-fiction that had never appealed to me. That area was the whole section of biography. For some reason I just wasn’t that interested in other people’s life stories. The nearest I’d got to it was things like the James Herriot Yorkshire Vet books. Those tended to be more of a story of his working life rather than his life and upbringing. But then things changed…
The first biography I remember reading was Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. I read this more because it was a Bill Bryson book rather than an autobiography. After all, I’d read all his other books so it would have been rude not to! All his other books had been mainly about language or travel memoirs. This one was a true telling of his youth in Des Moines, Iowa so it was, more or less, a combination of the two genres. It was entertaining, but Bill Bryson is an entertaining writer on whichever subject he turns his hand to. As a result I went back to my usual diet of fiction and non-personal facts.
When The Working Day Is Done
The change came after I retired in 2017. In one of my previous lives I’d worked for Manchester City Council in the Homeless Families section of the Housing department. One day when I was pottering around with nothing much to do I went into a local charity shop. The charity in question was Shelter and they helped people who found themselves without a roof over their heads. They were taking on volunteers and it just seemed to strike a chord and I decided to go along and help out for one day a week. Thanks to my loquacious nature I was put on the till so I could chat to people and encourage them to spend more money than they had originally intended to.
Another bonus for me was the mountains of second hand books that came in regularly. Much to the dismay of my ever loving and long-suffering wife I would come home with boxes and boxes of books each week. I also had the opportunity to sit and read when the shop was quiet. But because the shop’s stock came in the form of donations it was never possible to predict which books would be available so I would sometimes end up reading a book that I wouldn’t usually pick. And this is where and when I started to read biographies.
Lives, The Universe, And Everything
Since then I have bought and read biographies and autobiographies by all sorts of people; actors, musicians, comedians, racing drivers, engineers, doctors, to name but a few. Incidentally, I’m not going to get bogged down by questions about whether it is a biography, an autobiography, diary extracts, or a memoir. Basically, I’m just going on about famous people’s lives. Among them are the writings of Alan Rickman, Miriam Margolyes, Richard E Grant, Minnie Driver, Michael Caine, Elton John, Eddie Izzard, Eric Clapton, Jenson Button, DannyTrejo, Anthony Daniels, and many, many more.
So why the sudden change? To be brutally honest, I don’t know. Why does one suddenly take up an interest in something new? I think that, in my case at least, I was backed into a bit of a corner and had to start reading an autobiography. Whilst doing so I came to the realisation that these people, who never seemed real to me before, had actually had fairly ordinary lives not unlike my own. They had the talent to get to the front of crowded field and the luck to picked out to go further. Other than that though, they could have been ordinary like me.
There, But For The Grace Of (Insert Preferred Deity)
Sometimes though, a person’s story will strike a definite chord. For instance, at the moment I’m halfway through Richard E Grant’s memoir A Pocketful Of Happiness. It isn’t a full autobiography. It is, instead, the story of the last year of his wife, Joan Washington’s, life. So while it runs from December 2020 to December 2021 and is mostly concerned with the diagnosis, treatment, and inevitable outcome of Joan’s illness there are snippets throughout of their lives and work. So why should such a seemingly downbeat tale ring a note with me?
Quite simply because I had lived through something similar. I had to watch my wife discover her cancer, undergo the horrendous treatment with all its concomitant side effects, see the effect it had on her daily life, watch the inevitable descent and, ultimately, her death. For me it was back in the eighties but the thirty plus years haven’t diminished any of the memories. Each page is a reminder; my wife’s final collapse happened at Christmas just as Joan’s was discovered. When you say the wrong word and bitterly upset the woman you love it hurt me just as it hurt Richard.
Time Passes Quickly, Memories Fade Slowly
Even though it is decades after the events the memories can be so raw that I’m not sure if I’ll be able to finish reading it. I couldn’t go and see Ordinary Love because the trailer was such an accurate depiction of a woman with breast cancer that it was just too painful to watch even though I love Lesley Manville! Still, I’m sticking with it for the time being for all the entertaining anecdotes about Withnail And I, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker. I know he has a lot more stellar credits so I’ll stick with it as long as I can.
Something that does make you think, especially when dates are mentioned, is how long the whole process of making a film can take. During the filming of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Richard became very good friends with Melissa McCarthy; something I can easily understand as she always seems delightful. She came for a visit on 16th May 2021 as she was in the UK finishing off a film she was working on. The film that she’d just finished work on was The Little Mermaid which opened in May 2023.
Well I Never…
Now I know that there is a lot of computer jiggery pokery which has to be done after the event but I do wonder how much of their performances many actors can remember when they are at the premiere. I was also thinking that, if you want to make a career out of making films then you need to get hold of some of the many scholarly tomes that hold the secrets of the craft. If, like me, you just want to read something and think “how interesting” or “well I never” then the memoirs of film actors is they way to go!
Another book that was interesting for the background of the films the writer had been in was Madly, Deeply – The Alan Rickman Diaries. Again we have an actor with a spectacular range of performances and plenty to tell about “behind the scenes” life. Unfortunately, the diaries didn’t start until 1993 so we don’t get any gossip about Die Hard, Quigley Down Under, Truly, Madly Deeply, or, most disappointing of all, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves! I would have loved to hear what Alan Rickman had to say about Kevin Costner.
Don’t Hold Back, Alan
He wasn’t renowned for holding back…”A great film, I am told. Would I watch it twice? No.” – Twelve Years A Slave. “Deeply frustrating. Seeming to ride on (correct) assumption of Judi’s greatness, allowing quite a lot of script laziness.” – Philomena. “Woman’s Weekly tosh from Woody Allen.” – Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He didn’t mince his words! But the one that we were all looking forward to reading about was the Harry Potter series. “Never work with children or animals” goes the old theatrical saying. What is the thinking about working with children and house elves?
It was 23rd August 2000 that he said “yes” to the role and runs to the 7th July 2011 when it is the premiere of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2. Filming actually finished on 29th March 2010 though. It is possible to find the Harry Potter excerpts removed and gathered together if you look online. If you haven’t got the time to read the whole book but are keen to know what Alan Rickman thought of his young co-stars and the likes of David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, and Warwick Davis try Googling “alan rickman harry potter diary”.
Not THE Elton John?
One thing that does tend to seem a bit unusual is the Olympic level of name dropping that goes on in celebrity memoirs. Alan Rickman’s tales of Trudie and Sting’s Christmas party, Richard E Grant talking about Nigella Lawson sending meals around to cheer them up, Danny Trejo chatting about working with Robert DeNiro, Miriam Margolyes saying about going to Kevin Kline’s hotel room to practice slapping him.
It does start to seem a bit pretentious but then I remember seeing Eric Idle on the Graham Norton Show. He was telling a tale and names were dropping like confetti when Graham pulled him up about it. Eric just said “You work in the circus, you get to know the clowns.” It is interesting when they have a juicy bit of gossip though!
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!